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Monday, July 30, 2012

Identity: One man’s search after adoption

Thomas with this adoptive parents (family photo)

An interview with Thomas H. Pierce (Menominee)
By Trace A. DeMeyer

Thanks to a growing community of adoptees on Facebook and the internet, I interviewed Thomas H. Pierce, now 58, a member of Menominee tribe of Keshena, Wisconsin.

Thomas explained that he is listed on their descendent roll (there is a 1/16 blood quantum requirement) though his tribal brother told him he has more. Like many adoptees learn, it’s a matter of proof and finding lost relatives after years of being lost and separated by a closed adoption.

The following testimony is graphic but very important as it’s related to the Indian Adoption Projects and their intended outcomes. Thomas is not the only adoptee I know from a Wisconsin reservation, including his Menominee rez, who was taken to Pennsylvania for a closed adoption.

Tell us a bit about your tribal affiliations…

Thomas: I am 3/16 Menominee and also 3/16 Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican. I believe my father was Native American but I can't find him, even though I know his name. I lack the 1/16 each tribe requires for minimum full tribal status.

Do you know why you are adopted?
Thomas: I was adopted when I was 5 days old. I found out my adoption was due mostly because my grandfather would not allow my birthmother to bring me home. My mother was a Navy Corpsman. (My birthfather may have been also.) I was born at the Naval Hospital in Camp Pendleton on the Marine Corps military base in California.

 What was your childhood like?

I was adopted by a career Marine, Lt. Col. Herbert E. Pierce, a soft spoken “hero” in every respect. My adoptive dad was Cherokee, 1/4 blood, but his family denied it because of racism in Oklahoma. He was a WWII and Korean veteran and highly decorated.

Then there is my adoptive mother, an alcoholic, pill popper, ETOH abuser. (ETOH Abuse: When it is said that an individual is suffering from ETOH abuse what it means is that they are abusing alcohol. Most people have not heard of alcoholism being referred to as ETOH abuse and this is because this phrase is predominantly used in the medical and rehabilitation sector. The word ETOH is short for ethanol, which is the primary ingredient in alcohol.)

My mother, I believe, just hated kids. She treated us shabbily but she held a special hate for me. When she was angry, she sailed on about me being a bastard.

My father wasn't around much due to his postings so I was raised by my older sister who was eleven years older than me. When I was about 8 years old, she went off to school.

Because of my mother’s ETOH abuse, she slept in everyday until 10 a.m., so I never had anyone to rely on for getting breakfast, getting dressed or ready for school. As a result, I was a wild child, feral in some ways.

I do remember my adoptive parents were going to adopt a Navajo boy but he was violent - he grew up on the street eating from garbage cans, taking care of his younger brother, so they sent him back. I took that to heart and realized my tenure with my family was tenuous at best.

They always seemed to be sending me off somewhere, every summer vacation. I went to camps or to relatives and finally to a children's home where corporal punishment was practiced liberally.

I even made many trips to psychologists, until they told me my mother was to blame for my problems. I don't blame my Dad though he enabled her and then he was dying, very sick, and passed away at age 54. At that time, I lost my only defender. Then my relationship with my mother turned for the worse, if that was even possible.

She sent me for a summer to an acquaintance where I was sexually abused and where my own alcohol abuse started. She would do things out of spite, like setting me up with a friend for a weekend, telling this friend of hers I was gay, which I am not; but at least by this time I was old enough to fight off my attacker.

Then later, she phoned child authorities telling them I was abusing my own son, all proven untrue.

I was written out of the family will and received no inheritance or money. She gave away land which we had bought but by then I didn't care. Our relationship was irretrievable. I just wanted the few possessions my father bequeathed to me, the only things that would have mattered; and she ignored my sons with their inheritance.

But believe it or not, I mourned at her passing, mostly for the lost opportunity of a decent relationship she threw away.

 Did you have any Indian friends growing up?

I had no Indian friends growing up; there are not many Indians in the snooty environs of Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, known for its wealth and society types. In fact, Wyomissing was a great place to learn how to fight. I was teased relentlessly. I learned to fight three or four guys at a time, just to survive as my tormentors waited for me with a beating and racial slurs.

But I was proud to be an Indian and I knew I was adopted from my first recollections. Despite the denials of being Indian from my father’s side of the family, they told me to be mum because they were still hanging Native Americans in Oklahoma and Missouri.

 What did you learn about your adoption and your adoptive parents?

Thomas:  I was adopted nine years after the end of World War II and my adoptive parents had been trying to have other children. My father wanted a boy. Since he was part Cherokee, a Native child seemed natural. One of my two sisters (their biological children) looked particularly Native American. After I was adopted, many of my father’s friends remarked, in their words, “You certainly can't deny him, Herb.”

We looked remarkably alike, even when I was in my 40s. I wished I was his but alas I am not.

I was told by my mother that due to father’s military service (malaria/jungle fevers) my dad was lacking enough sperm. I believe it was her who had medical problems and she had a hysterectomy in 1956-57. With her alcohol and drug abuse, as well as deep-seated psychological problems, perhaps she felt inadequate.

I was psychoanalyzed three times. The psychologists keep saying my problems were a result of her. She had a vicious temper and would assault me many times over the years, like a woman possessed, often when she visibly intoxicated.

My father and I had a good relationship, he was a mellow thoughtful man whom I could confide anything.

After my father died no one could modify her behavior. She kept an article on a blackboard about a theory that some children are “Bad Seeds.” This was pointed out to me constantly. She even blamed me for my father’s death.

She also had a way of pitting sibling against sibling to achieve her aims.

In early 1977, when she accused me of child abuse, I got so angry I threatened to kill her if she ever stuck her nose in my business again. I was written out of her will and had no contact with any family until the early 90s.

It was established there was no abuse of my children. I have raised six and never raised a hand in anger to any of them. I became my adoptive father.

There was not religious or financial reasons for them adopting me. When they sent that Navajo boy packing, that did affect me. I knew I could also be sent away. I acted out in my older years. I felt my mother just did not want me around.

 What’s your life like now and what type of work are you in?

Thomas: I have been married three times. It took me three to get it right.

I have been clean and sober for 18 years now.  I served in the military, Marines and Navy, as a corpsman. I boxed as an amateur. I love fast cars and motorcycles. I was Pre-Med in college but ran out of money. I’m studying for my Masters in Labor management, converting credits from my B.S. degree in nursing.

I have worked at everything: carpenter, boilermaker, sheet metal journeyman, and have lived all over this country. I’ve visited 49 of 50 states, lived in 15 states, and visited 25 different countries, as military, or working in the trades, or just for fun. One can never get enough travel, knowledge or evolve and involve oneself politically.

All the lessons I learned from the Colonel, early life with him, was a great civics lesson. He was a born teacher. He taught at Yale and had his PhD in History and also taught ROTC. He taught high school after he retired.

When did you decide to open your adoption or did your adoptive parents have info for you?

Thomas: I always knew my first mother’s maiden name and was curious in 1995. I felt I wasn’t disrespecting my adoptive parents. When I finally found her, my mother and I corresponded, wrote letters. She never told anyone about me so I never met her in person while she was alive, so as not to embarrass her.

Can you tell us a little about your tribal family reunion?

Thomas: About four years ago I reached out to my family in Keshena. Our reunion was grand. I come from such a proud and large family. I am still getting to know them and regret not doing it sooner.

Dr. Verna Fowler is a nun and she started the tribal college. I greatly respect my aunt and admire how she helped Native colleges everywhere. She’s truly a beautiful strong woman.

Also, my Aunt Shirley was instrumental in regaining our Nationhood back. (The Menominee were terminated but it was restored.) *see history below

I learned my own mother took in and adopted many children, as well as raising my two other half-brothers.

Unfortunately, due to many health issues and funds, I haven’t been able to travel back to my rez often. Mostly it’s my health. I almost died a year ago which awakened me to my own mortality, realizing I may have waited too long. It took many attempts to unseal my records and finally be recognized by my tribe.

One of my aunts thought I might be after something. She was right: I wanted my identity. My only regret is not starting this process sooner. I am fortunate to have such a wonderful family.

 Any advice for other adoptees…

Thomas: My advice to adoptees is “be persistent.” The laws are there but it’s just getting the system to work for you and it is slow. Yes, you might not be as fortunate as I was. My Aunt Verna gathered up as many relatives as she could and gave me a wonderful homecoming, catered at the College of the Menominee. I was and still am humbled by her kindness and warmth. I am still awaiting my naming ceremony, mostly due to health reasons, but I have no regrets.

The Menominee Indian Tribe’s rich culture, history, and residency in the area now known as the State of Wisconsin, and parts of the States of Michigan and Illinois, dates back 10,000 years. At the start of the Treaty Era in the early 1800’s, the Menominee occupied a land base estimated at 10 million acres; however, through a series of seven treaties entered into with the United States Government during the 1800’s, the Tribe witnessed its land base erode to little more than 235,000 acres today. The Tribe experienced further setbacks in the 1950’s with the U.S. Congress’ passage of the Menominee Termination Act, which removed federal recognition over the Tribe and threatened to deprive Menominee people of their cultural identity. Fortunately, the Tribe won back its federal recognition in 1973 through a long and difficult grassroots movement that culminated with the passage of the Menominee Restoration Act, Public Law 93-197, on December 22, 1973.

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